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Feature: INCOMING preview – Manic Chord Theatre

Posted on 03 March 2014 by Harriet Stevens

A neuroscientist, a psychologist and a physicist go into a laboratory… Sounds like a joke, right? Well actually it’s the premise for Manic Chord Theatre Company’s revived After What Comes Before, which it’s due to perform at INCOMING festival in May.

Manic Chord – a.k.a. Alex Monk, David Cartwright and Sam Berrill – is currently preparing to embark on a UK mini-tour, which culminates with its performance at the New Diorama Theatre in May, and I managed to grab a brief chat with the team to discover a little more about the company and what we can expect from its show.

The company was formed in 2012, after they graduated from the Theatre and Performance course at the University of Leeds. Since then it has made two professional shows, the first of which was After What Comes Before, the show it took to Edinburgh in 2013, where it was met with an encouraging response from both audience and press (Five stars and “bold, bonkers and brilliant” from Edinburgh Fringe Review and “A rollercoaster of devised mayhem that gets the laughs all the way” from The Stage to name but a few).

The trio describe themselves as a “high energy ensemble” with a “particularly distinguishable physical style” although admit that, as a fairly new company, they’re still discovering what it is exactly that characterises their work. But to give us some idea: influenced by companies like Cheek By Jowl and Complicite, they consider themselves to be in a similar theatrical vein to other contemporary, young companies such as Kill the Beast and Antler Theatre (both of which will also appear at INCOMING Festival).

Cartwright explains that, “the first show was a very steep learning curve as we found out how we all worked together – initially it was a bit haphazard.” Individual roles quickly emerged with, alongside performing, Cartwright taking the lead on writing and dramaturgy, Berrill as director and Monk as producer.

Cartwright went on to explain that, although these became apparent as each member’s “area of expertise,” the process of making work is “still a very collaborative method of devising,” and particularly as all three perform in the show, it’s necessary for each member to also have an eye for directing.

When the group made its second piece, Don’t Let Go, these production roles seemed to further cement themselves and it looks like this is a comfortable working pattern for the company to follow in the future, perhaps even more so as the guys explain how they envisage bringing in new actors to allow them to concentrate on their individual creative production roles.

When talking about the future, the passion and excitement that the company has for its work is clear to see, and the three agree that an adoption of this sort of positive attitude is the best advice they can give to those looking to start their own company. As Cartwright says, “you need grit and determination to do it because there’s going to be tough times, but if you’ve got the passion to do it then you’ve just got to commit to it.” “But be prepared to have no money,” Monk adds, “We knew we were going to have to work other jobs, to lose sleep, but that’s all part of the fun of it.” Cartwright continues, “we’re also very disciplined in setting ourselves a schedule for work, but when that part of the process isn’t actually making money then you have to be quite disciplined”. “Ah, money’s overrated!” laughs Monk.

After leaving university the company had to make the decision whether to move to London before starting up or to stay on and make its work in Leeds. After opting to capitalise on connections they had already established, and after comparing the costs of living and working, they decided on the latter and is still a Leeds-based company. This is one of the reasons why they believe INCOMING festival is so important and are keen to share how they love the way the festival is able to bring together so many out-of-London artists to perform in the city. “We kind of see it as a way to test ourselves,” Cartwright explains, “to see if we can get something going in London”.

I ask what audiences can expect from After What Comes Before, and Cartwright responds, with a theatrical head turn and eyebrow raise, “well, they don’t call us Manic for nothing…”. The group laugh. “It’s high energy and fast paced. It tells the story of three mad scientists,” he continues. “It’s about their relationship, and how they try to build a machine to control people’s thoughts.”

The show explores a number of hot science and ethics topics and, although they tell me that it was never their initial intention to take the show down such a ‘scientific’ route, it developed “quite a socio-political underpinning” in the way it tackles current controversies about scientific advancement being used for human conditioning and genetic manipulation. “There was a big debate, particularly in America, about ADHD and about whether people should take pills to calm themselves down,” Berrill explains. “I think we must have been influenced by that and other similar issues in the news at the time we were devising the piece”.

I ask whether, as this is a revival, there has been much change to the piece they originally performed at the fringe in 2013. “You’re forever wanting to tinker with a show, when it’s your own, to make it better,” says Berrill. “As we’re starting the tour next week it’s really the perfect opportunity for us to keep it fresh, to fall in love with the piece again, and find the moments that we want to rework.” “It was a similar process in Edinburgh,” Cartwright adds. “The show changed quite dramatically from the first show to the last – so who knows what it’ll look like by the time we get to London!”

Berrill earlier described the company as performing with “a competitive playfulness,” and I had noted how their energy and interaction as a trio onstage has often been remarked upon in press reviews. It’s something that, after seeing the three together, I can well imagine and can only interpret as the kind of onstage chemistry that comes from the natural joy and energy produced by performers who have forged both a close and trusting working relationship and an off-stage friendship.

After What Comes Before will be at AYT’s INCOMING Festival at the New Diorama Theatre on 21 May. For more information and tickets, visit the NDT’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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Running like Clockwork: Action to the Word

Posted on 26 July 2012 by Abigail Lewis

Physicality, energy, violence, brutality, arousal, triumph, horror. These are the surprisingly visceral words that come up when you type “Action to the Word” into Google. The company will be performing last year’s festival sell-out A Clockwork Orange again at next month’s Edinburgh Fringe.

The show, which – with alarming relevance – brings Anthony Burgess’ novel about youth rebellion and violence into the the modern day, is composed of an all-male cast and has received rave reviews. “It was such a fantastic summer for us last year,” company director Alexandra Spencer-Jones tells me. “We’ve been working on Clockwork since 2009 and it was lovely to be able to bring it to such a diverse and engaged audience. Martin’s award and our warm reception from the press were the icing on the cake.” Changes to the production for this year’s run include “three new powerhouse actors” who will take on “even tougher, more aesthetic physical work.”

“I enjoy the thin line between comedy and tragedy,” Spencer-Jones continues. “People have left the show in fits of laughter and in floods of tears. At the heart of the dystopia is a simple morality tale, which is why the novel was deemed so subversive in the 1960s. Alex is the perfect anti-hero: a rapist and a murderer, yet somehow by the middle of the play we’re with him, on his side. He is betrayed again and again by the social system, teachers, doctors, policemen – the play is as relevant now as it was when it was written and will remain so for as long as boys will be boys. My vision for the piece came entirely from my fascination with the behaviour of boys. The audience should come away with a whole mix of things – revulsion, eroticism, anger, comedy.”

Having an all-male cast has invited the question, “Is the production a gay Clockwork Orange?” but Spencer-Jones maintains that the play is “about all kinds of sexuality. Alex’s rape of a man is, like all forms of rape, about power. My choice to just have men on stage blurs the boundaries between the sexes, generations and people from all walks of life. I’ve always been fascinated by original practice and men playing women convincingly. Clockwork is a real acting experiment, the actors play 8 parts each, shape-shifting from policemen to prostitutes, jailers to old ladies. It’s a testament to their acting as an ensemble.”

Martin McCreadie, who plays the lead role Alex DeLarge, agrees that the atmosphere within an all-male cast is “absolutely brilliant. There is an innate pack mentality that lads can sometimes get caught up in. I remember, before last year’s Edinburgh run of Clockwork, one of the lads had discovered a grueling fitness regime called the Spartacus workout. We surrendered ourselves to this self-torture and it made for good banter, and a healthy competition to get ready for a physically demanding show. I’m interested to see what fitness fad we’ll be hurting ourselves with this year!” His experience with A Clockwork Orange “almost cannot be put into words. I have been so fortunate to portray such an iconic role in such an iconic piece. The rehearsals are full on, not only for my own character but for all the other lads in the company and their multi-characterisations. It’s physical, physical, physical and all the while very demanding in terms of mental application and focus. I love the aesthetic we achieve: moments of an almost catwalk/pop video image obsession, juxtaposed with brutal, visceral violence. The most challenging aspect is the fact that I don’t really come off the stage for more than 5 seconds, so I need to make sure I’m on my A-game, achieving all the necessary light and shade in my performance to keep the audience on board with Alex DeLarge’s extraordinary journey. I sometimes think of the kitsch elements of the pop art of Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, which whilst seeming fun and uplifting, actually allude to something quite serious or sick in our society.”

The ongoing relevance of the show for today’s youth is continually emphasized by both director and actor. “The list of reasons for under 25s to come and see this show is endless,” McCreadie asserts. “The soundtrack, the movement, the unique language, the dark humour, the pace at which the storyline zips by, etc. Speaking from my own character’s point of view, Alex DeLarge actually represents a lot of feelings that young people are actually being subjected to today. The high expectations laden on the youth from parents, the media, commercialism, the government, the older generations in general, even the church. Left wing, right ring, it doesn’t matter – expectations of the youth of today are high, yet when young people are either graduating or trying to secure apprenticeships of even enter higher education or simple employment, the way is barred. The door is shut, fees and costs of living independently are rocketing while opportunities decline. It is the same all over Europe and I think the riots throughout the UK last year were an indication of what can occur when the youth are spurned. Alex DeLarge represents all of this.”

“Young people are absolutely vital to the progression of any performative style or medium, not just theatre. It is the vitality and daring that flows freely through young people that makes for exciting new ideas, without which the theatrical world would stagnate and decline. Does theatre alienate young people? Yes and no. In this smartphone age, younger people want results and experiences quicker than ever before, so live performances have to be on par with these expectations, which I think our Clockwork achieves. There are not enough proper theatres in some parts of the UK and many well-known establishments particularly in London, price the younger generation out of the market. On the flip side, there are opportunities for wonderful experiences if we seek them out. I saw a free performance of The Tempest at the RSC a month ago. It was an understudy run, but the production values, artistic vision and a high calibre of theatre were all still on display. In terms of creating and performing theatre, there are plenty of dramatic societies across the UK that are constantly putting on performances. The onus is on us young people ourselves to seek them out and get involved.”

A Clockwork Orange will play at the Pleasance Forth for the duration of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year before transferring to The Old Market in Brighton in the autumn. For more information about Action to the Word, visit their website www.actiontotheword.com. To book tickets at the Pleasance or for more information, visit www.pleasance.co.uk/edinburgh.

Image credit: Action to the Word

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Review: The Vanishing Horizon

Posted on 05 May 2012 by Edward Franklin

Though The Vanishing Horizon is the second Idle Motion production to visit Bristol, it was in fact devised before the company’s astoundingly beautiful The Seagull Effect, which played at the Tobacco Factory Theatre last year. In many ways this is clear: the clarity and inventiveness of theatrical expression in this exploration of the legacies of female aviation pioneers is not quite as breathtaking as in their more recent work. But this is far from a bad thing; every ensemble must begin somewhere, and this remains, almost two years after its Edinburgh debut, a most promising beginning.

The company are at their warm and tender best when imbuing delicate anecdotes with stirring resonance. Here, the standard accoutrements of travel – from battered suitcases and maps to cargo crates and paper airplanes – are used to bring to life the stories of those women who defied social convention to find freedom both literal and metaphorical in the open sky. Each vignette is approached with charm as it is realised visually; though moments of shadow puppetry tend to distance an audience from the narrative rather than draw them into it, other techniques prove unexpectedly moving. Who knew that lengths of ribbon being unfurled to become flight paths could have such a tingly effect on one’s spine?

Part of that effect may very well come from the other area in which Idle Motion excel – those red ribbons provide a fitting symbol for the company’s knack for weaving facts, figures, past, present, grand themes and intimate tales into a rich tapestry. Here, musings on the past are interspersed with a modern-day account of a young woman’s travels in pursuit of the story of her estranged grandmother in South Africa. It is this which makes the work unique – Idle Motion isn’t in the business of delivering history lessons, nor has it simply alighted on a theme and milked it for its onstage possibilities. Rather, what begins as a piece about air travel becomes – in just one hour – a paean to the interconnectedness of individuals across time and space, to the human need for adventure, and to the transformative effect of solitude.

It is fair to say that individual performances rarely shine in the same sense that the collective work does, and, at worst, feel rigid by comparison – but one almost senses that the company has recognised this. It has certainly balanced the time between image- and character-driven scenes appropriately, suggesting yet again how admirably conscientious it is in the devising process. As such, though The Vanishing Horizon is far from perfect, it marks the starting point for a potentially quite special physical theatre company. The theatrical table at which Idle Motion is angling for a seat is too often found buckling under the weight of its own moodiness – with a welcome helping of warmth and fuzz, this ensemble bring something exciting to the party.

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Training with the text: Fourth Monkey Theatre Company

Posted on 24 February 2012 by Abigail Lewis

Known for its challenging and provocative revivals of classic texts, Fourth Monkey’s spring season comprises new productions of Lord of the Flies, 4.48 Psychosis and The Bacchae. A key aspect of the company’s identity is its dedication to working with “new undiscovered talent”, and its reputation for engaging with young people has gone from strength to strength since introducing its Year of the Monkey training programme. Offering a course similar to a foundation year at drama school, the scheme boasts lower fees than institutions and the unique opportunity for young actors to perform in the company’s rep season.

22-year-old actress Georgia Kerr knows firsthand what a hugely positive experience this can be for a young performer. She started work with Fourth Monkey in September, and is appearing in Lord of the Flies and 4.48 Psychosis this year. She continues, “It has worked so well for me – I’ve already been to university, so the great thing about it is it has enabled me financially to do some form of theatrical training. It was every weekend at first so it’s a big commitment but it frees you up during the week to do stuff on the side, to work if you need to. I feel I have improved a performer, all my previous experience is very theoretical and it’s lovely to be able to draw on very physical techniques. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of that.”

Hamish MacDougall, who is directing Lord of the Flies, describes Fourth Monkey as a “bold company” and is full of praise for the young actors. “It’s very much an ensemble-driven company. They’re a good group; they’ve got very good focus. They’re physically very aware, probably more so than a lot of the professional actors I’ve worked with. They work hard – they’re doing a rep system so they don’t get many breaks but that gives them a good discipline.” The programme the actors follow is a year long, with the group split in two. Last year, the other half did the shows and [this group] did their workshop training, and they’ve swapped it around now. On the first day they were quite nervous but they have progressed so much. They’ve picked up my process, now they’re completely with it, they’re very quick. I like working with young companies, they’re very eager and they pick things up more quickly.”

In MacDougall’s opinion, Fourth Monkey has revolutionised how a theatre company can work with young actors. “At drama school, you wouldn’t normally do plays until your last year and even then you’d do four performances – less than a week. It’s different here: the ethos is to learn on the job. I originally trained as an actor and I worked as one for two years. When you do your first long run it’s a huge surprise. With Lord of the Flies we’re doing a couple of months, not just four performances. It’s good training; it gives them that kind of experience of doing a long run, doing a professional process, doing a whole play instead of the scenes you’d do at drama school. It makes it more about what actually happens if you work in theatre rather than isolated classes.”

As for Lord of the Flies itself, MacDougall’s process involves ensuring the play chimes with today’s theatregoers. Nigel William’s adaptation of the novel into a script is “quite descriptive” and “cluttered” with props and sets that are more suited to the school play it was originally written as than Hamish’s vision. “There are scenes where four things are happening at the same time in different locations, and that won’t really work. So we’re stripping it completely back to almost a blank stage, forcing me to focus on the group of 14 actors. The important objects will become even more powerful. I didn’t want it to be like an episode of Lost or a desert island play, and hopefully with this stripped-back approach the audience can focus on the story: what actually happens and how. I want the audience to feel like they’ve made a journey with this small group.”

Setting isn’t the only thing that has changed and evolved. Golding’s original novel featured only boys, but Fourth Monkey’s production switches the original choir of boys to students from a girls’ school.“It’s contemporary, having a mix of genders,” MacDougall observes. He continues, “I’m sure that some people will come and go, ‘well this isn’t the story’, but hopefully some will find it quite interesting. I feel the balance has worked. There is a lot of violence between girls now.” Kerr takes one of the roles affected by this change, playing Jack, now the school’s Head Girl: “I was initially wary about how we were going to make it work as a girl, but she’s quite a young, nasty little girl, and it works well I think. We haven’t had much trouble with the gender issue. Lord of the Flies is a classically male-driven piece but having Jack as a girl works very well, especially in this day. There’s something intrinsically nasty about young girls at that age, who vie for power, and are terribly unforgiving if they don’t get the respect that they demand. She is very aggressive and she spins out slightly towards the end, it’s quite dark and sinister. The spiral makes sense. Girls are precious about power too, especially at that age.”

All of these changes work and hold true to the logic of the text itself because, as MacDougall notes, the story is “timeless… The original was written during the Cold War and there’s a whole thing about bombs and paranoia in the society the children left behind when they landed on this island. Today, we have terrorist threats almost every day and there is a similar sense of paranoia all around the world. There’s a class issue as well, which I think is still prevalent today. A group of public school kids taking control violently – we’re run by a group of public schoolboys at the moment aren’t we! That’s quite contemporary.” There is also an ethos of honouring the original material, despite these departures in setting and characterisation. Kerr describes MacDougall as “a very text based director, working through the play, seeing the arc of our characters and the turning points for each.” Ensuring actors understand how their characters change as the plot progresses is vital to MacDougall’s style. “Georgia’s character is very tricky,” he admits. “She could easily be played as a bullying maniac. But she’s got a very specific journey of her own, which we’ve looked at.”

Also appearing in 4.48 Psychosis, Kerr confesses she feels “so lucky to have been put in both these plays. The directors are so different; their processes are so different. Steve [Green, who is directing 4.48 Psychosis and is also Artistic Director of the company] is a much more physical director. He works from a character base rather than looking so much at the text.” Rehearsals were full of variety. “With Steve, we had to do boot camp, 14 hours of movement that stretched and bent and pulled everything. And then you go to Hamish who is the direct opposite, chilled to the max and a bit more analytical.” Green’s production of 4.48 Psychosis sees the cast take on characters that represent facets of the protagonist’s psyche, with Kerr adopting the role of Grace, evocative and representative of all texts relating to religion or with a religious connotation. Meanwhile, Natalie Katsou’s revival of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a new translation by Ranjit Bolt, sets the ancient text at a musical festival with Dionysus starring as a rock god.

Scrolling through Fourth Monkey’s website is to be presented with countless opportunities, whether you want to act, write, produce or work in any other aspect of theatre. As an alternative to drama school, Kerr is full of praise for the programme: “I believe as an actor you do need training. You want to get the right launch into the industry; you need to develop your technique, you need to know your body and have control of your voice. Drama school is everyone’s first point of call and it is highly competitive.” Her advice to aspiring thespians is to remember “there are other options. There is another route.” She continues, “Something like Fourth Monkey offers you something invaluable, the chance to be doing plays and be applying technique consistently. My advice is persistence. Keep going for it. This is a world of rejection and just because one route hasn’t worked, doesn’t mean another one won’t. Keep active, be doing it, be going to workshops. Drama school isn’t the only route.”

Georgia Kerr will be appearing in Hamish MacDougall’s production of Lord of the Flies and Steve Green’s version of 4.48 Pyschosis, performed in rep with The Bacchae at Theatro Technis from 1 – 18 March. For exact performance dates and to book tickets, visit the company’s website here.

Image credit: Paul Seaby

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